“Beyond the Wall” is the most straightforwardly high fantasy hour of Game of Thrones to date. Its initial rush of conversation is at times inelegant, but it does little to detract from its many shots of startlingly empty natural beauty and the silent, monolithic horror of the army of the dead. The sight of Jon (Kit Harington) and company marooned at the center of a frozen lake while the wights surround them in unmoving in rings of tens, if not hundreds of thousands is hard to shake, the spectacle of Dany’s (Emilia Clarke) dragons incinerating zombies in vast scything swathes doubly so. If the battle rings empty on a symbolic level and pulls its punches when it comes to mortal consequences, it’s still beautifully shot and visually striking.
Flourishes like Beric’s (Richard Dormer) flaming sword, once the centerpiece of an episode all by itself, have dwindled to notes in Martin’s titular song of ice and fire. Yet the show’s swelling scale belies this episode’s tight, intimate focus. Even as the adventurers beyond the Wall come face to face with the Night King and his endless legions and one of Dany’s dragons plummets shrieking from the sky, dead by the enemy’s hand, Sansa (Sophie Turner) confronts a much less grandiose horror in the bag her little sister keeps under the bed.
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Spectacle for Its Own Sake
While the murk of uncertainty around Sansa, Arya (Maisie Williams), and Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) continues to thicken, you don’t need to understand that particular web to feel Sansa’s fear and disgust. Her family home may be hers again, but her younger siblings have undergone terrible metamorphoses. If Arya can dance between faces and steal the lives of those she kills, what reason does Sansa have to believe the person she’s talking to is her sister at all? What else might lurk behind Arya’s face? It’s as deeply sad, in its way, as the earlier conversation between the sisters in which Arya dismisses Sansa’s suffering, acting every bit the swaggering knight she reveals she longed to be as a girl.
The sight of Viserion first bursting into flames and then spilling a torrent of blood as he plows into the lake and vanishes beneath its water is unquestionably the episode’s symbolic heart. Showing the fragility of the mythic power at the center of Game of Thrones helps to keep the show’s scale human and its struggle tense, but the expressionless, implacable might of the Night King doesn’t make for interesting viewing. While Game of Thrones has never lacked for compelling villains, the White Walkers, personality-free and possessed of a slightly hokey rubber-face aesthetic, aren’t its strongest asset. It’s an unfortunate sour note here.
“Beyond the Wall” may punch beneath its weight class, but in the mixture of tenderness, heat, and confusion between Dany and a wounded Jon, the admiration Jorah (Iain Glenn) expresses for a rueful Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) not long before the latter’s death, and the violating dread of seeing Viserion resurrected as an instrument of the frigid necromancers bent on Westeros’s destruction, it still showcases much of what makes Game of Thrones a fantasy epic for our time. Into every circle of security and safety, from the unspoiled natural beauty of the world beyond the Wall to the very flesh and blood of a beloved sibling, the specter of death has come crawling.
Winter is here.